In the face of an economic crisis, no one feels the brunt of the impact like Main Street. The COVID-19 health crisis has already led to unprecedented economic damage that is sure to change the small business landscape for years to come. However, now that nearly every business – and especially every small business – has an increased reliance on virtual operations, there has never been a more critical time to consider policies to enhance broadband and Wi-Fi technologies and networks.
The coronavirus-induced economic pause has already led to massive reductions in corporate America’s bottom-line forecasts, major disruptions to international supply chains and emergency adjustments to industries typically insulated to external shocks such as the food and beverage industry. But small businesses across the board will be forced to transform business as usual, relying more heavily on technological resources to continue commerce. The nearly 5 million Hispanic small businesses across the mainland United States and in Puerto Rico that our mutual organizations represent will be disproportionately impacted by this contraction, even if it proves to be temporary.
The CARES Act and other pending fiscal stimuli intended to focus efforts on funding the Small Business Administration are great first steps. Providing employers with the flexibility to choose to maintain employment instead of increasing unnecessary layoffs will lead to a much faster return to the economic growth of early 2020 when the effects of COVID-19 begin to wane. Automatic deferments on the payments of the nearly 25 million loans that the SBA currently has outstanding will further free up entrepreneurs and business leaders to focus on maintaining employment, providing necessary goods and services to local communities and supporting overall economic morale. Outside of these fiscal measures, however, regulators and elected officials can make a substantial impact by considering regulations that will help provide current relief, while also investing in future growth.
While nearly all businesses have now converted at least a portion of their operations to virtual operations, the nearly 5 million Hispanic small businesses across the United States (which contribute close to $1 trillion dollars to America’s pre-2020 economy) are especially reliant upon broadband access, capacity and technological improvement. Wi-Fi, in particular, is the cornerstone for the majority of our businesses’ continuity. Policies that allow for measured improvement in these areas could allow businesses and entrepreneurs to quickly convert operations to better leverage today’s economic paradigm shift.
Even before the current crisis, experts made predictions that Wi-Fi capacity would be stretched thin in the coming years. Unfortunately, since 2003, unlicensed spectrum (the bands of spectrum that are allotted to most Wi-Fi technologies) has remained the same. According to an IHS Markit study, all businesses, not just Hispanic-owned, grew from nearly zero reliance upon Wi-Fi to almost full ubiquitous consumption of the technology in recent years, while the spectrum capacity for devices that rely on Wi-Fi has remained the same. Such limitations were already expected to impede economic development, especially for the Hispanic-owned small businesses that make up the fastest growing segment of all small businesses.
Now that every business relies upon broadband access and Wi-Fi technology for nearly every commercial transaction, something must be changed. Before the coronavirus crisis, estimates anticipated that the impact of Wi-Fi on the overall economy would reach $1 trillion over the next couple years. Given the proliferation of dependence upon internet accessibility and home offices, we can expect that this number will be even higher.
To improve the opportunity for growth and accessibility, we are encouraged by actions taken recentlyby Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and his fellow commissioners to expand access to unlicensed spectrum within the 6 GHz band. Doing so will not only, over time, allow a buffer for the increased capacity that wireless and Wi-Fi networks are experiencing during today’s unusual crisis, but will also provide the space for small and mid-sized businesses to access the highest speed broadband technologies necessary to compete and grow in the future. Additionally, expanded access will allow for infrastructure improvements that will provide the oft-discussed buildout of broadband technologies within rural communities that have been desperately needed since the inception of the internet.
Under normal economic conditions, a rapidly evolving technological and business landscape means that innovators are reliant upon policymakers to improve regulations that allow small businesses to grow. With the unusual outbreak of a virus devastating the world’s economies, it is clear how reliant a resilient American economy is upon technological innovations, especially related to internet access and Wi-Fi technologies. We are hopeful that the FCC will appropriately weigh these considerations when the commissioners vote on the 6 GHz item at their April 23 open meeting. As more businesses and consumers are forced to work, shop, access health care and conduct their daily lives online – especially fast-growing and disproportionately affected Hispanic-owned businesses – expanding the unlicensed spectrum bands that Wi-Fi technologies can access will help to ensure that small businesses can withstand future economic speed bumps, while allowing for continued growth in an increasingly tech-reliant world.
Ramiro Cavazos is the president and CEO of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Justin Velez-Hagan is the executive director of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce.
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